The Magnetic Power of Music


by Isabelle Arsenault
by Isabelle Arsenault


“ Certain sounds boost attention and facilitate remembering at deeper levels of consciousness.”

Music, bringing a unique pleasure to humans for ages continues to engage us with its captivating power in ways which remain unknown. When we listen to a piece we like, we are affectively engaged to it and its melody may cause us to have chills, or fire a dopamine rush leading to an emotional peak.  Another piece may be calming and attuning one to a desired state of well-being. Depending on the context, the musician, the psyche of the listener and possibly other factors not yet measured, music can produce a myriad of effects.  Leading the research on “peak” effects of music, Zatorre and Salimpoor write, “music makes our brain sing.” The musical information, the tunes, sounds, melodies are mentally represented in the cortical structures of the brain and these representations enable us to hear, imagine and improvise musical pieces in the absence of music. The cortical networks artfully connected to each other allow us to make predictions or anticipate the coming notes or chords based on the past.  “So, each act of listening to music may be thought of as both recapitulating the past and predicting the future. When we listen to music, these brain networks actively create expectations based on our stored knowledge.”

At higher levels of inspiration, the musician’s knowledge, memory, attention and affect come into play as he instantaneously imagines and projects the whole composition with its technical and artistic features. “The composer intuitively hears it” states Zatorre and Salimpoor.

“Each note rubs the others just right, and the instrument shivers with delight. The feeling is unmistakable, intoxicating,” musician Glenn Kurtz describes the moment in Practicing.

The interplay of music and memory has always been a fervent topic in neuroscience. It has been witnessed (Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia) in neurologically impaired cases diagnosed with severe memory loss including loss of speech, the subject who formerly had a musical training preserved his ability intact and he could still play on the piano, the melodies that he once knew.

Neuroscience experiments discovered that certain musical sounds infuse human memory. “They boost attention and facilitate remembering at deeper levels of consciousness,” writes Daniel Levitin, in his book, This is your brain on music (one of the best I read so far). Renowned for his seminal work on the effects of music, he masterfully consolidates the findings of neuroscience and maps the brain for the laymen’s eye the in the diagram below:


Daniel Levitin, “This is your brain on music”

He emphasizes the importance of balance in any musical form:

It is important in science, of course, to define our terms. What is “too simple” or “too complex”? When a musical piece is too simple we tend not to like it, finding it trivial. When it is too complex, we tend not to like it, finding it unpredictable –we don’t perceive it to be grounded in anything familiar. Music, or any art form has to strike the right balance between simplicity and complexity in order for us to like it.

Magnetized by the lure of music, he believes that music by its nature is made to touch the soul. “Otherwise what is the value of music made for material ends? ” he makes an allegory to the man who “ gained the world but lost his soul…”,  in the lyrics composed by George Harrison.

Daniel Levitin marks the connecting power of music as its supreme quality:

“The power of art is that it can connect us to one another, and to larger truths about what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.”


Duygu Bruce
June 27, 2019

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